Closeted gay and bisexual men are being publicly outed in the North African kingdom of Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal, as a social media campaign spearheaded by a controversial transgender beauty influencer is taking hold.
Earlier this month, Naoufal Moussa, also known as Sofia Taloni, encouraged her hundreds of thousands of mainly female Instagram followers to set up fake profiles on the gay dating apps Grindr and Planet Romeo to "catfish" the men closest to them — their brothers, sons, husbands and neighbors. Moussa urged them to do so after she herself had received transphobic messages, and she was reported to have said in a subsequent video that she had hoped that exposing closeted men would make Moroccans realize how common homosexuality is in the Islamic country.
The identities of the unsuspecting men were reported to have been uploaded online and shared via the messaging platform WhatsApp, casting a dark cloud over Morocco's LGBTQ community. The timing of the campaign, which started in mid-April, has been particularly worrisome, as many young Moroccans living freely in Europe have returned to quarantine with their religious families during the coronavirus pandemic. Already, there have been reports from news outlets and the international rights group Human Rights Watch of suicide, death threats and forced evictions in the country, where being gay is punishable by up to three years in prison. NBC News has not confirmed the reports.
Following the outing campaign, Human Rights Watch called on the Moroccan government to repeal Article 489 of its constitution, which punishes same-sex relations (or what it calls "sexual deviancy"). Local human rights groups, including L'Union Féministe Libre, Association Akaliyat, Atyaf Initiative and Aswat Collective, have hurriedly set up online resources to discreetly offer assistance to those at risk.
Human Rights Watch said a 23-year-old university student told the organization that after he was outed online, his brother, with whom he was living, kicked him out of the house.
"I've been sleeping on the street for three days, and I have nowhere to go," the student was quoted as saying. "Because of COVID-19, not even my close friends are able to host me."
According to a report from Agence France-Presse, local police are beginning to investigate the outing campaign. However, Hicham Tahir, a Paris-based Moroccan journalist, said the situation is a Catch-22 for victims.
"No victim will be able to testify. That'll make them even more harassed, and they're afraid of becoming criminals instead of victims," he said. "They won't go and see the police, because they're afraid of being exposed even more."
Tahir said he knows of at least one case of suicide in which the 21-year-old victim's photos were leaked because of Moussa's "witch hunt." He said he could not share additional information about the alleged victim.
Moussa did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the apps being used by Moussa's followers, Planet Romeo, recorded a suspicious surge in new users in Morocco around April 12, according to Sven Voges, the company's chief operating officer. Voges said Planet Romeo started to investigate around the same time Human Rights Watch contacted the company. He said the app issued a security alert urging all users in Morocco to be extra cautious, and he added that all profiles created in the country after April 12 have been blocked, with no plans for now to allow new profiles from Morocco, to help ensure the safety of current users.
In further attempts to hamper Moussa's outing efforts, Facebook confirmed that it has disabled her Facebook and Instagram accounts and removed her videos from both platforms. The social media giant said that while she "has made several attempts to create new accounts," it is taking "proactive steps" to track them down and remove them.
"We don't allow people to out members of the LGBTQ+ community," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We're taking proactive steps to find and remove other content like this."
Tahir said that as Morocco's already hidden gay community retreats further into the shadows, there is a sense of despair that "the knife they've been stabbed with came from a member of the community."